Night falls early in Patna these days and there’s a biting wind as well. Lalu Prasad, the man who said he would be prime minister one day, is wearing thermals and a pheran. This is the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition of Bihar Assembly and the nameplate shows his wife, Rabri Devi’s name. There’s a bonfire going in the courtyard and an attendant is busy giving Lalu a pedicure. “The feet get hard,” he says.
Another attendant is busy rubbing tobacco on his palm for Lalu’s next fix. A third attendant is clutching a handful of papers, photocopies of data to rubbish Nitish Kumar’s claims of growth. Lalu is still a natural, transforming the moment he sees a crowd.
But, there’s a sense that this year’s Bihar election may be a huge test. There were about 300 people for his Makar Sankranti lunch of curd, flattened rice, potato curry and a sweet made of sesame seeds and sugar. That is far fewer than when he lorded over Bihar. He answers a few questions.
What’s your take on the growth of Bihar under Nitish Kumar?
The CSO (Central Statistical Organisation) has retracted the growth figures that you refer to. How can you compare Bihar to Gujarat when the agriculture sector, the principal activity in Bihar, has been performing negatively for three of the past five years? Can you grow overnight? I am not a child. I have been in power for 15 years. Don’t I know how things are done?
Is it an illusion then?
Does Nitish Kumar have a magic wand that he can wave and transform everything? It seems that Manmohan Singh and Barack Obama should learn from Nitish Kumar. Nitish must be given the Nobel Prize, it appears. The growth story is an illusion created by media and government hype. It will take a long time in Bihar. We are not dealing with fairytales.
What about you? You had 15 years.
Bihar is a complex state where you have to know how to take everyone along. I tolerated humiliation. I went to prison. They said I had swallowed fodder. Did I eat up Bihar like a termite? I gave dignity to the desperately poor. I did all that I could as railway minister. Now, they want to run down everything I did. Let them…
Nitish appears to have learned from your experience.
Nitish Kumar is a toy in the hands of the upper castes. It takes a lot to run Bihar. Nitish will also learn. I am the voice of the broken and the destitute. You have seen, at the lunch, the kind of people who come to me. Who else will treat them with respect? Lalu is not done.
We will hit the streets. We will hold the government, both at the state and the Centre, accountable for the price rise. You will see what Lalu is made of. You will see how hollow the claims of growth are.